Introduction: Upcycled Sofa Foot Box (with Bonus Marquetry)

About: I am a multimedia maker and STEAM educator living in Los Angeles. There are few things more satisfying to me than acquiring and exploring a new skillset, so you'll find a wide variety of materials in my projec…

This is another project inspired by the Instructables/Dremel July Build Night at Crashspace LA.

If you live in a densely-populated, urban environment like I do, you may be familiar with the wealth of "dumpster diving" opportunities. I'm moderately picky (for one thing, I don't actually venture into dumpsters), but there are still some amazing finds. I'm particularly fond of bed knobs and furniture feet, and a lot of folks just chuck their furniture when they move or get something new, so I have a small collection just begging to be hacked. At last, my little wooden baubles, I have found a project for you!

In this project, I used recycled and/or free materials as much as possible, and stuck largely to the Dremel rotary tool and Multi-Max, though there are other tools you could use. The Multi-Max comes with a very handy wood cutting attachment that is good for carving out small spaces and is used heavily here.

Step 1: Re: Materials

A couple things about furniture feet: most of them screw off, so try spinning them before doing anything more drastic. I have gone so far as to saw a bed knob off when it was glued in place and didn't want to unscrew, but there are a lot of fish in the sea, and a lot of furniture that folks are getting rid of. Don't go too nuts. Sometimes you'll find solid wood feet, occasionally hollow, and sometimes plastic feet, filled with particle wood and veneered. You can work with any of those, and each has its own particular quirks, though I wanted to work with one that was solid wood. For one thing, you can sand down and refinish genuine wood in a way you can't do with cheapy veneers. Check the photos for some of the things I've found.

The top of the box is decorated with marquetry. "Barb, I don't know what marquetry is!" Actually, you probably do, you just didn't know that's what it was called. It's that wooden puzzle-piece-type decoration you sometimes find on wooden boxes or tables. Click here to read more and see some examples. You can make patterns with lots of different materials: paper, glass, mirror squares, paint color swatches, etc. Typically this kind of art is done with very thin wood veneers. As I was feeling the need for wood in this project, I used old floor sample pieces, which I got for free at a hardware store. They're a bit thick for the usual marquetry cutting techniques, but they work great with the Dremel tools.

Step 2: Use Protection

Earmuffs. Mask. Goggles. Fine wood dust is not meant for eyes or lungs. And this next bit is loud.

Step 3: Cutting the Lid

First, you'll need to unscrew the double-sided screw, which can be a bit of a pain. They're designed to stay put, after all. Use some strong pliers and turn counter-clockwise. This part can be tough, but stick it out. You can do it.

Next, plan out your attack. I used the Multi-Max with a wood flush cut accessory to remove the center of the foot. As an oscillating tool, and with that particular flat attachment, it's a good choice for digging into places you'd otherwise have to cut open to get at. Unless you're working with a very shallow piece of wood, it's easiest to work on hollowing the center from both ends, so this is the time to decide what you want to do with the ends. I wanted to have the wide part as the base of my box, and a lid at the narrower end. I made marks around the block where I planned to cut the piece that would become the lid. On this foot, you'll see it has this lovely, wonky sort of shape, so rather than try to measure with a ruler, I used a scrap block roughly the depth I wanted and traced it on each side. Since I wanted access to the bottom, I decided to just cut through and use a scrap piece of plywood to seal up the base. If you'd rather use this block of wood exclusively, you can cut off the other end the way you did the lid, and reglue it once the interior is done.

I always recommend using vises, as I never find myself with enough hands, and the two I have I prefer to keep. I used a scrap of fabric and some tape to give the wood a little protective padding. There is no official technique for this, you can be as sloppy as you like with your padding so long as it pads. I planned from the beginning to sand down and refinish the wood at the end, so a little bit of scraping was alright. You can keep the finish that the manufacturers gave it, you'll just have to be a bit more careful to keep from damaging it.

If you haven't used the flush cut attachment with the Multi-Max before, do yourself a favor and play around with some scrap wood first til you're well acquainted.

Clamp your foot in and use the Multi-Max to start a shallow groove along the lid line. Rotate when you need to get to another side -- you'll want to make the groove all the way around before you start going deeper. I found cutting in from the corners as well as the sides was helpful for making sure the cut was uniform all the way round. Cut gradually, keep moving. If you see smoke coming from the wood, yes, that is indeed a sign that it's getting hot and is time to switch to a new spot. And if the tool gets too warm, give it a break and get yourself a drink of water. Cutting wood always makes me thirsty.

If the radius of your foot is longer than the length of the cutting tool, you might need to use a thin hand saw to cut all the way through the center when you've reached the limits of the attachment.

Congratulations, you have a lid! If you want to use the foot's original base, go ahead and cut off a piece at the base of the box as you did with the lid. Time to hollow out your box.

Step 4: Hollowing the Foot

Decide how thick you want the walls of your box to be. Perhaps you want just a tiny space inside, or maybe you want as much as possible. Just be aware of where the sides are when you're carving from the inside. As with cutting off the lid, start with a shallow groove on all lines and work deeper. You might be able to break on through to the other side (break on through… break on through…), or you might need to dig out some of the inside to get deep enough. See the photos for my method of using diagonals to clear out smaller chunks. I kept on using the same method, alternating cutting into either end until they met in the center.

It can take a while. I like to listen to music (on headphones under my earmuffs).

There are other tools that you could use here. If you have access to a lathe, that's another option. If your box is small enough, a drill press with a large hole saw might do the job. For this particular instructable, I'm exploring a project that can be done largely with just a couple tools. Feel free to use whatever you like. And do post a comment with your suggestions!

By the time you're through, it might be a bit messy inside. You can use the Multi-Max flush cutter, a sanding bit on a rotary tool, or chisels to clean things up. It might never look perfect, but that's alright. If you'd like, after you've done any staining/finishing you want, you can line the inside of the box with velvet or felt or some nice fabric.

Step 5: Re: Messing Up...

If you accidentally cut through the side of the box, you have a few options. You can start over with another furniture foot and chalk it up to experience. You can figure out a way to hide the hole (perhaps with a decorative bit of marquetry) or feature it (by making it larger and installing a small glass/acrylic window). Or you can call it an artistic statement about the beauty of imperfection. You're gonna mess up somewhere. Embrace it.

Step 6: Sand!

If you're planning to refinish your box, this is the time to remove what's already there. A lot of paints and finishes have nasty chemicals and/or lead in them. What I said about having wood particles in your lungs goes double for this stuff. Get a mask. Use it. Sand in a place without kids, pets, or particularly sensitive plants.

You can use the sanding attachments both on the Multi-Max and the regular Dremel rotary tool to sand it down, and then you'll want to sand again by hand with a finer grit. And then again, even finer. I stopped after sanding it all down at 220 grit.

One thing you might encounter is Bondo or wood putty (see picture). You can try to remove it, although it's probably there to fill in unsightly holes. Just be aware that it will look different from the wood if you put a stain over it. Another opportunity for improvisation, huzzah!

Step 7: Making the Base

If you cut off the bottom of your box before hollowing it out, this is where you glue it back on. If, like me, you planned to give it a whole new base, this is where you make it.

I took a scrap piece of plywood and cut it down to be just a smidge smaller than the bottom of the box. It's large enough to have enough gluing surface contact with the rest of the bottom, but it doesn't stick all the way out to the edge and show off how different it is from the rest. It's more subtle.

Step 8: Staining And/or Finishing

Before starting, I used some painter's tape to mark off the top inside edges of the box and stuffed the bottom with paper towels, since I only wanted to stain the outside. Read the instructions on your products. I'll trust you to follow those. I used a Varathane wood stain that I had on hand, and three sprayed coats of clear satin lacquer. The little imperfections left after sanding (I still managed to get some dings from the process) look pretty nice with the stain. It gives it a little more character.

Step 9: Hinges

I'd have preferred to use salvaged hinges for this, but I couldn't locate any the right size. Alas, I had to buy some. Curiously enough, my craft store didn't carry any, but I located a set of properly sized hinges at a hardware store. To keep the continuous shape of the body and lid, I carefully carved small recesses for the hinges with the wood cutting Multi-Max attachment, and screwed them in.

A project like this one that is primarily made of wood can also benefit from a handmade wooden hinge. Keep an eye out for a future instructable on how to build one.

Step 10: Marquetry: Prepping Your Materials

You can stop at this point, with a lovely repurposed wood box, but I decided to go a step further and pretty it up with some marquetry.

There are laminate and hardwood floors, and you can find samples for both. I went with the latter, as it's more substantive and looks nicer. Most were mounted on presspaper or wood, a few (especially bamboo) were solid blocks themselves. Different methods are needed to thin down each sample block in order to work with the material. If it's mounted to presspaper/cardboard, you can probably remove it without the use of power tools. Just take a chisel and start gently prying the wood from the presspaper, slowly working your way around the edges and then in toward the center. Take your time, or it's likely to snap (see pictures). Once it's off, scrape the excess presspaper off using the chisel.

Those floor samples that are mounted on wood or are solid blocks themselves are best thinned using the Multi-Max's flush cut attachment from before. Again, it's unlikely to come out completely neat and flat, so you can try the flush cutter, the sanding attachment, or chisels to smooth things out. Different materials will respond best to different tools. Experiment.

Step 11: Marquetry: the Design

Measure the space you want to cover and find or create your own design to fit it. I put together a few different options in Illustrator (I ultimately used a simpler variation on one of them) and included six of the patterns I made in case you'd like to scale and use them. One very precise method of cutting the wood pieces would be to use a laser cutter. The way I did it was to print the design onto heavy card stock, cut out each piece of the paper pattern, trace it onto the back of one of the wood pieces and cut it down using a rotary tool. A cutoff wheel is good for straight cuts, and sanding bits can work well to grind the pieces down to fit exactly. I find it most effective when using this method to err on the large side while cutting, lay them in the pattern, and then sand each piece down a little bit at a time until they match neatly. Experiment a bit with direction of the grain; a big part of this art form is to utilize the uniqueness of the wood surface in the design.

Once you have everything the way you like it, glue them in place, clamp them down, and finish with a top coat if you like. Be aware of any glue that comes out between the pieces and wipe it off with a damp cloth. When gluing wood, I usually use a separate board to cover the surface and clamp on top of that, since clamps can leave their own marks, but in this case, any glue that snuck out while drying might permanently bind the project to my clamping board. You can see from the pictures how I snuck past this, forgoing the board and using some fabric to soften the strategically placed clamps.

Step 12: Fin!

That's it! Woodworking takes practice, and there are a lot of different style feet out there, so try a bunch. These boxes can make nice gifts, or just something to sit on your coffee table and house your antique button collection.

It could also be interesting to make a hidden storage space inside a functioning sofa foot. Of course, if you try that, just make sure there's still enough of it left to support the actual furniture. And don't forget to share your pictures!